Close Reads

A Love Letter to the Joyfully Bizarre Mashup of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Naruto

Welcome to Close Reads! In this new series, Leah Schnelbach and their guests will dig into the tiny, weird moments of pop culture—from books to theme songs to viral internet hits—that have burrowed into our minds, found rent-stabilized apartments, started community gardens, and refused to be forced out by corporate interests. This time out, writer and musician Tom Lum celebrates Anime Music Videos—specifically mashups of Queen and Naruto.

There’s a tumblr account called Just Two Things that catalogs examples of art that, at the behest of seemingly no one, mix together two fandoms or properties in a bewildering combination that borders less on Peanut Butter & Chocolate and more Toothpaste & Orange Juice. You can find Cinderella drawn in the style of Dragon Ball Z and Mickey Mouse wearing Batman’s tights and cape.

As the blog points out, many of these feel like soulless pandering, like an algorithm designed to combine the two TV shows with the highest Google analytics numbers and throw them blindly into a stand mixer. People like Pikachu, people like Mickey Mouse, why not a Pika-Mickey-Mouse? It’s the kind of art that wears its identifying properties in bright neon colors so even legally-culturally-blind uncles and aunts can identify them and gift them because one time you said you liked Pokémon, don’t you remember?

It’s easy to get caught up in this wave of defensive antagonism and write off some fan content that doesn’t come from an algorithm—art that comes from a real person somewhere out there, who simply really, really loves two things. And in that case, sometimes that bewildering combination shines a light on what it is that is so uniquely special and beautiful about fanart. So let’s talk about my favorite piece of fan art, the “Bohemian Rhapsody”/Naruto AMV.

Anime Music Videos (AMVs) are a wild and beautiful medium, and in the early 2000s, with the new ability to host any video for the world to see in glistening 360p, YouTube was a new frontier for the artform. It should be said first that there’s no such thing as an “official” AMV. It is a fan creation that by its nature spits in the face of copyright, combining unlicensed music with unlicensed video. Nowadays, streaming services offer a wealth of high-quality source material, but back then clips were pasted together like a cut-up magazine ransom note, with Cartoon Network watermarks one second and neon purple subtitles the next. You’ll also often find incantations attempting to ward off copyright strikes in the descriptions of AMVs. One such spell reads: “I DO NOT CLAIM RIGHTS TO EITHER MUSIC OR VIDEO. EACH BELONGS TO THEIR RESPECTIVE OWNERS. NO COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT INTENDED”.

But my favorite of these descriptions, from KillerRainbowz, really encapsulates the beautiful authenticity that is why I love this medium so much: “DISCLAIMER: I DONT OWN NARUTO OR QUEEN. I DONT OWN ANYTHING.”

And in this desperate honesty, you can see the earnest mixing of these two art forms, not by a mixing machine, but by someone living in a mixing world. I was a latchkey kid and the first person in my family born in America. I grew up both dreaming of the Gundam figures that lined tightly packed Chinatown toy stores, and singing Billy Joel and Elton John like I was already an aging Jersey father. And back then I loved Naruto. I still do, but I Loved Naruto back then, and signs of it still show. In a college seminar, I once quoted a line from the manga, and to lend myself legitimacy, simply referred to the source as “a Japanese story”. And back then I loved Queen. I still do, but I Loved Queen, and signs of it still show. There was a moment last year when I was interviewing for jobs from my childhood bedroom and realized I should take down a collage of Freddie Mercury on my wall that spanned 3 sheets of printer paper carefully glued together. At least temporarily. And so, back then, nothing else struck me so powerfully and precisely through both halves of my convoluted heart like my favorite “Bohemian Rhapsody”/Naruto AMV.

Before we take another step: I un-ironically, genuinely think the 2000s ninja anime Naruto is a perfect match for the 70s operatic mega-rock ballad “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Your typical AMV usually comes in two flavors. Most will pair a fight scene with a song you might hear on a workout playlist or a commercial for a “revolutionary” piece of technology. The third most popular AMV on YouTube is a Naruto fight scene backed by two separate Imagine Dragon songs (it’s a long fight).

I think these kinds of AMVs are good, and they really use the same snappy audio/visual language that makes even a cheesy action movie trailer get your blood racing. Another common AMV trope is to pair characters to quirky or romantic songs, “River Flows in You” being the “Free Bird” of this genre.

But “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t have a single tone. It starts prophetic and ephemeral, then it flows into a raw, aching plea with Freddie and the Piano, then (after an objectively perfect guitar solo) it turns on its head and dances like a commedia dell’arte performance, then it crashes into a headbanging arena rock anthem, before finally circling like an ouroboros back to Freddie and the Piano, and a final line from our prophetic choir. Naruto doesn’t have a single tone either—characters with truly biblical blights are at times fighting and at times accidentally kissing each other in a zany situation at school. The spiky-haired ninja comically chomping down ramen is born with the spirit of a demon that killed his parents at birth. It’s a story at once about daily struggles, and the fate of the world.

Sahara1128’s Naruto/“Bohemian Rhapsody” AMV is a great example of lining up the common threads in these two disparate works.

Like the song, it starts where it will end, with the character Sasuke standing, fallen from grace, at the end of the final fight. Then, during the opening piano ballad we are shown Sasuke’s origin, his whole village having been killed by his older brother, before scenes of him beginning to befriend Naruto. And then it gets silly, turning between Sasuke and Naruto making silly faces at each other on the low and high “Galileo”s, while also showing scenes of Sasuke being tempted by evil. It all comes crashing into the visually stunning fight scene between Naruto and Sasuke that would end this chapter of the series. And as the song ends on its contemplative whisper, Sasuke stands over a defeated Naruto, silently deciding not to kill him, but to leave, as a final image of Naruto and Sasuke together is shown. An AMV, by its nature, is not the most original or unique art form—but the most beautiful color isn’t one that you’ve never seen before, it’s one that reminds you of something. And a good AMV pulls and mixes the best of both mediums, and will remind you of all the reasons you love these two things.

To say it all at once, I think Naruto/“Bohemian Rhapsody” AMVs are beautiful both in what they are and how they came to be. When I look at a 3-course meal I can barely fathom the process that went into it, but when I look at a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I can see a person taking out their favorite jelly and their favorite peanut butter and putting the two slices of bread together. There is no greater how, and most importantly there is no greater why. There are many reasons to make an elaborate meal: to impress, to improve, to succeed, to be original, but you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because you love peanut butter and you love jelly. KillerRainbowz’ Naruto/“Bohemian Rhapsody” AMV description offers the clearest ‘why’ for us: “cause my mom and I were in the car at the beggining of the week driving back from school and we were blasting Queen….we tend to do that xD Enjoy the video!”

But do you want to know the truth? Can I acknowledge an absence, or a confusion of plurality you might have noticed from this piece? In the title and in my mind’s eye I refer to a very specific “Bohemian Rhapsody”/Sasuke AMV, one that first struck me and blends the two mediums like two halves of a whole put together at last. And I think it was removed. Perhaps its copyright talisman wasn’t strong enough, but none of the dozens I’ve watched for this piece have the exact sequence that’s burned into my mind. And that’s the last beautiful thing about these pieces of art: there’s no government or council or enclave of PhD students who will make sure these things are saved. But, like a perfect mixtape lost in a childhood bedroom somewhere, its absence from the annals of history doesn’t mean it isn’t vitally important to someone.

It’s a beautiful thing for someone to spend so much time tying a British rock band arrowhead to a ninja anime stick, to loose that arrow haphazardly across the internet, and for it to land in your heart. Most times you’ll never be able to reach back and say thanks. You stand on your side, struck forever, and they stand on theirs, hoping someone enjoyed it. And the fact that we keep doing it, spending hours polishing arrows that combine our favorite things, for whatever compels us, and shooting them into the open air, is a testament to what it means to be a person growing up and finding what you love on the internet. I love toothpaste, I love orange juice, and I’m so glad someone made a toothpaste and orange juice sandwich for me. And so I’ll keep making them in the hopes someone loves them too.

Tom Lum is a writer, musician, and science communicator in NYC. He cohosts the podcast Let’s Learn Everything! and makes things at TomLum.com. He’s @TomLumPerson everywhere.

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